“Sadly, in Gospel music today seldom is proclaimed the God of liberation—just the God of escape. Seldom is heralded the God who will deliver us from evil, just a God who delivers us from reality.”
This quote comes from “‘I Am the Holy Dope Dealer’: The Problem With Gospel Music Today,” from Obery M. Hendricks, Jr’s newest book, The Universe Bends Toward Justice. An activist seminarian, Hendricks contrasts modern Gospel music as an expression of African American Christianity with the Spirituals of the slavery and Emancipation eras. As you may guess from the quote, Gospel music falls short. I suggest Hendricks could go even further.
Though Hendricks presents a very complex and richly nuanced thesis, I want to focus on just one part. Hendricks describes the change from Spirituals to Gospel as coinciding with the Great Migration. In the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, hundreds of thousands of Black Americans left their rural agrarian roots in the South in pursuit of better work and a more prosperous life in Northern cities. Instead they found slums, smoke-belching factories, and appalling alienation.
Hendricks says, “assembly line labor is, by definition, mind-numbing and disempowering.” I would say it doesn’t have to be; the factory where I work encourages creative engagement and a certain autonomy. But I can ascribe that to a management that sees itself beholden, in part, to its labor base. Not all companies share that ethos, especially not white-owned companies with black workers in a time of legally enshrined racism.
As African Americans increasingly adopted 20th Century urban ideals of radical individualism, the communitarian ethos of the Spirituals came to seem increasingly quaint. While Civil Rights leaders used the old plantation songs to stir up political engagement, a new breed of Gospel songwriters championed a “me and God alone” ethic in which the individual reigns supreme, and political concerns are at best secondary.
This results in a Black population largely unengaged in the fight to better its situation. While racism dare not show its face in public, it has not disappeared from America (I abandoned my favorite watering hole because of overtly racist banter against President Obama). But African Americans are no longer energized to address naked inequities in our body politic. Hendricks blames that on curtailed community, starting with worship songs.
Hendricks, African American himself, justifiably focuses his inquiries on questions of race and racism. But I contend he does not describe a uniquely Black problem. Loss of community as a motivating factor in Christian civic engagement has had lamentable consequences for American Christianity. And while multiple factors probably contribute to that shift, we cannot overlook our increasingly individualistic modes of worship.
Evangelical Christians formerly led the fight for social justice. Evangelicals held leading roles in Abolitionism, the Labor Movement, and Women’s Sufferage. But after Dr. King’s death, Evangelicalism fell under the sway of radical proponents of the status quo. While traditional “peace churches” like the Quakers and the Mennonites continue agitating for justice, Evangelicals have become notorious for reflexive conservatism.
Not coincidentally, this change has taken place at the same time as much music in Protestant churches has transformed. David Murrow notes that the great classic hymns are sung about God, where much Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) is sung to God. Moreover, where classic hymns encouraged communal singing and group harmonies, CCM’s syncopated rhythms and first-person-singular language reward soloists.
Music has long been the centerpiece of worship. Whether the Psalms of monastic prayer, the four-part harmonies of Isaac Watts and Charles Wesley, or the power pop of Christian rock stars and youth leaders, music has bound believers together into a body. But this “I” focus in the newest music subdivides that body. Christians talk to God, but not to each other, or to the world.
Hebrews 10:25-25 calls on believers: “And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” Much current Christian worship habitually only encourages the self, and spurs singers on only to personal morality. Encouraging one another had fallen away in favor of individualism.
Christian leaders often complain about their perceived creeping irrelevance. If they hope to beat back this trend, they need to start by reminding their flock that we are in this struggle together, and only together can we bring forth the vision of the apostles and the prophets.